Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer is an ambitious, politically outspoken, all-encompassing pop-R&B statement album at a time when the existence of such a thing is not a given. Out since April, it’s her tightest album, and it abounds with smooth grooves, classic-sounding rhythm guitar hooks, jokes, puns, and manifestos, all designed to reveal the horror of the current political situation and to establish cheerful solidarity among fans and new listeners. That she should overreach in pursuit of this noble goal is hardly a blunder.
Monáe has been a critical favorite since the start of her career, when her pose as an “android” and her elaborate science fiction lyrics signaled her commitment to self-conscious artistry. Her first two albums, The ArchAndroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013), bury a smattering of catchy pop-funk beats beneath fussy arrangements, orchestral interludes, florid filigrees, and social commentary obscured by flights of fancy. The lyrics concern a messianic android named Cindi Mayweather and her quest to save society from suffering, inequality, and such ills, although it’s easy to lose track of what symbolizes what. But she also possessed a Prince-like polymorphism, a playful joy in synthesizing genres — for example, on “Tightrope” (her collaboration with Big Boi from The ArchAndroid), an itchy, jump-blues bassline and big-band horns skitter while the beat zigzags sinuously.
Dirty Computer ditches the excess, comprised exclusively of songs as crisp and excitable as “Tightrope,” “Q.U.E.E.N.,” and “Dance Apocalyptic.” While she still dabbles in occasional sci-fi concepts (on the wriggly “Take a Byte,” she strings together a series of computer and sex puns), the musical distancing devices — strings and harps announcing each new song, instrumental tracks indicating dramatic transitions — are gone. The album moves quickly and sharply, keyed to a riveting electronic bounce.
Although critics have bemoaned Monáe’s failure to score chart hits, Dirty Computer’s musical functionalism hardly means she’s abandoned self-conscious artistry. Despite the success of Bruno Mars (who engages more with the language of contemporary hip-hop), upbeat mashups of familiar funk and R&B are only rarely the stuff of pop smashes nowadays. While Monáe’s knowledge of music history and her facility with genre have produced elegantly complex and information-rich songs, these are retro syntheses, committed to interpolating history. She pays tribute to dance music as a vehicle for political activism and/or escape, framing her array of funk basslines and snappy rhythm guitars in the context of a modern dystopia. It’s this confluence of pop-traditionalist form and politically timely content that drives Dirty Computer.
When “Screwed” deploys rubbery bass, watery keyboard echoes, and an aggressive, almost hard-rock guitar riff to punctuate a singalong anthem about sex during the apocalypse, she makes the album’s underlying theme explicit, i.e. hedonism as political defiance: “You fucked the world up now/we’ll fuck it all back down/let’s get screwed!” Then the song breaks down, the beat slows, and she whispers through a vocoder: “See everything is sex/except sex, which is power/you know power is just sex/you screw me and I’ll screw you too” — an apt slogan. “Make Me Feel” is an ebullient, bubblegum-funk groove, with contrasting verses to accentuate the kinetic motion: percussive snaps and wobbly keyboards alternate with a slower section whose ostinato vroom builds up theatrically to the regular beat again, culminating in repeated bursts of rapid drumfire syncopated with the rhythm guitar.
As a collection of dance grooves, Dirty Computer’s energy sustains. As a statement of political defiance, it’s slighter than her thematic range suggests, because big political statements are tricky in moments of crisis. In its broadly ambitious songwriting and reshuffling of black pop history, Dirty Computer takes recent acclaimed totems like Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) as its model, but it won’t join their ranks in the pop canon, partially because Monáe lacks those artists’ star power, but also because the sweeping coercion of the consensus attached to those albums was a product of the Obama era. However scathing their songs, the structure of those albums — their expansive scale, their artistic musical experiments, their presentation as big statement albums — conveyed an underlying optimism, a belief that the gesture of making such an album can make a difference. The tightness, harshness, and generic disposability of Lamar’s own Damn (2017) all but announced that things have changed under Trump.
Hence, Monáe’s cheer on Dirty Computer feels remote, even residual. When she enlists Pharrell for a sassy funk duet on the slinky “I Got the Juice,” the song’s playfulness delights but feels incompatible with the political slogans sprinkled throughout: “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back,” she taunts (get it?); meanwhile, the target of this quip still occupies the White House, and so a sour aftertaste emerges. Despite the absence of ornamental filler, she’s still constructed the album like a grand show — after the brief, introductory title track, the ringing keyboard chords and “classic” images of hedonism on the Carpe Diem! manifesto “Crazy, Classic, Life” could open a Broadway production. The ironic affirmation of the closing “Americans” (“I’m not crazy, baby, I’m American”) is too shticky a finale. By placing the song at the album’s end, she implicitly forgives her fellow citizens more than we deserve. One could imagine a full cast singing the song while dancing around the stage holding hands. The celebratory mood jars.
Dirty Computer’s flaws are not crippling ones. If Monáe makes the occasional clumsy gesture, she’s also written songs whose rousing qualities depend on the scale of her ambitions. The album bops and shimmers, always in motion, filled with cathartic glee.